Juli heard Dereck Birnham’s raised voice speaking on the telephone in Spanish as she came downstairs for breakfast. Dino and Pamela were already at school. Peter and Tony attended their University courses in the evening. Peter was having breakfast in the kitchen when Juli appeared.
“Well, hello” he grinned, getting up and pulling out a chair for her.
“Hi, and how are you this morning?” Juli replied , collecting her breakfast things and cutting herself some crusty French bread.
“Yes, so I gather.”
“Did you meet him last night?”
“No. I went straight up to my room after supper.”
“Mmmm – a bit”
Peter laughed. “So you do have feelings!”
“Fool. Of course I have.”
“Did you enjoy you day with Rita and Quique?”
“Rita and Emilia, her sister, Quique opted out. We had a super time, and went all over … San Telmo which was fascinating, Florida street, Plaza de Mayo, Congress, the Casa Rosada, we ended up by going and having tea with Rita’s family and I met them all. What lovely people they are. Rita had all her ‘facts’ at the tip of her tongue, she could be a tourist-guide, she must have done a lot of home work.”
“You probably know more about Buenos Aires than all the Carlie family put together. Did you meet Fernando, Rita’s twin?”
“Yes, tall thin and languid, not a bit alike.”
“Peter, old chap?” Dereck Birnham’s voice boomed in the hall.
“Coming … come on Juli, let me introduce you.”
Dereck Birnham was a broad man of medium height with wavy brown hair, greying at the temples, brilliant brown eyes, half-closed and surrounded by a network of wrinkles from years of looking into sun-filled distances, and a splendid tan despite the fact that it was midwinter.
“Uncle, let me introduce you to Juli Lane,” Peter said
The older man stretched out a firm hard hand and gripped Juli’s eagerly.
“So you are Juli Lane,” he exclaimed heartily. “How are you Juli? Great to meet you. We’ve been really looking forward to your arrival. I’m sorry I couldn’t be here to meet you when you arrived. But I understand Peter went in my place. How was the flight? All in order? Marion tells me that you’ve been out getting to know Buenos Aires from the very moment you arrived, wonderful. It’s a great city, eh? A great city.”
Juli recovered her hand and smiled, nodding her head. It seemed the best thing to do considering the torrent of words with which Dereck bombarded her. He at once proceeded to grip her shoulders with both hands and propel her into the sitting room.
“Come into the light so that I can see you better,” he said laughing, obviously pleased with what he saw. Patting her shoulder with an air of satisfaction he turned his attention to Peter.
“How are things, Pete? Exams going O.K.?” he asked, punching him lightly.
“Peter shrugged and replied with a grin. “There they are, eternal chasms to be crossed one way or another. I have two this week.”
“Get to it, lad, don’t lose heart. You’ll be bloody glad of your degree when you have it. Tony?”
“Sleeping I expect.”
“Well, don’t wake him. I’ll see him this evening perhaps. I must go into the centre now. I think I’ll be able to get everything done today and we shall be able to leave tomorrow first thing. I’ll let you know tonight, eh?” He nodded towards Juli. “You all right, got everything you need? Money?”
Juli nodded. “Yes, thank you Mr. Birnham.”
“Oh, for God’s sake, call me Dereck. We’re not at all formal in my family. Right, I’ll be off then.” He shrugged on a bulky leather coat lined with sheepskin, grabbed a shabby briefcase and left, slamming the door behind him, cutting his goodbye in half. Peter lifted the key to the wrought iron gate and followed him in order to let him out onto the street. Juli returned to her breakfast thoughtfully, trying to asses her feelings and reactions. They were confused and she found it surprisingly difficult, for a certain rejection towards his personality was offset by a sense of attraction for his breezy manner and invigorating energy.
“Well,” said Peter coming into the kitchen. “Now you’ve met him.”
Juli nodded soberly.
“How do you feel?”
“A bit like a prize heifer.”
Peter burst out laughing and said. “Don’t be daunted, he’ll be putty in your hands in no time.”
“He’s so … overpoweringly vigorous, isn’t he?”
“Much to my mother’s everlasting embarrassment,” murmured Peter acidly.
Juli gave him a sidelong glance and decided to change the subject. “Do you know,” she said. “You have never told me what you are studying.”
“Electrical Engineering. Slowly, struggling. It’s a six year course and I’ve done two.”
“So you have four years to go, like Tony.”
“ Yeah, or five or six or ten, I haven’t got Tony’s brain. I also work half day for a friend of my father’s in the afternoon. But I have exams just now so he’s given me a week off. If you’ll excuse me now Juli, I’m afraid I’ll have to go and study.”
Mrs. Carlie came in weighed down with shopping bags which she placed on one of the counters as she said, ”Good morning Juli, good morning Peter, shouldn’t you be studying, I thought you had exams this week?”
Peter, who had been on the point of getting up, leaned back in his chair and said in an offhand tone, “Good morning mother dear. Yes, I do, but where and when I study is really no concern of yours.”
“Peter … I’m getting sick and tired of your insolence,” Mrs. Carlie exploded. “It is becoming impossible to live with you in this house. You dress like a tramp, whenever you speak to me you try to be as rude as possible, you seem to think you’re the king-pin around here and can do exactly what you like at all times. I won’t have it. I simply won’t have it. If you want to live here then you’ll have to abide by my rules. This is my home and I refuse to put up with your utterly impossible attitude any longer. Who do you think you are, anyway?”
“Peter Carlie,” Peter replied with a dead pan expression on his face.
“Peter Carlie. Peter Carlie. Well, Peter Carlie, I just want you to have your hair trimmed and your beard; I don’t want to see you in those jeans or those worn out sneakers when you have meals with us; and I expect you to be polite at all …”
“In that case, Mrs Carlie I demand that you treat me like an adult and not a six-year-old as you habitually do.”
“I treat you exactly as you behave. If you insist on behaving like a six-year-old what can you expect?”
“What does it cost you to have me living here?”
“A great deal of money … a very great deal.”
“Alright, give me the money and I’ll go, gladly. You know very well that I can’t live on what I earn at Craston’s. If you give me what I cost you I’ll go and leave you in peace.”
“And have you telling the world that we kicked you out of the house? Certainly not! This whole ridiculous argument has blown up because I asked you quite simply if you had exams this week. All you can ever do is snarl and snap whenever I open my mouth. I’m sick of it and I’m not going to stand for it any more. Either you change your manners and make yourself clean and presentable or you can eat in the kitchen and be done with it.”
“Which is exactly what one says to a six-year-old, and I am not a child any more,” Peter yelled, jumping up from his chair.
“Look at me. Look at me. All you ever do is criticize. My hair, my clothes, my nails, my manners, my studies. Everything, everything for you is wrong but this is what I am. Let me alone, let me be what I am. Why should I be different just to keep up the Carlie ‘image’? The image of a perfect family, beautiful house, beautiful furniture, beautiful children beautifully dressed. Beautiful maid, manners, garden and garbage. An image, a nothing, an empty shell, hollow, worthless. I am real. I am flesh and blood not a bloody coat-hanger for expensive clothes. I want to shout and laugh like Dereck. Here in this house you squash life out as if it were a cockroach. Everything is form and image and you think that that is real, that that is what is important. But you’re wrong, don’t you understand? You’re wrong.”
Peter and his mother faced each other in burning silence for at least half a minute and then Mrs. Carlie turned away abruptly and began to unpack one of the shopping bags.
“I think I’ll have a cup of coffee,” she said calmly.
Peter stood looking at her with wild furious eyes, then he turned and left the room, slamming the door so hard that the whole room shook a little. Juli, paralyzed by Peter’s outburst, remained slightly stunned.
Long banished memories of her mother’s and father’s furious voices, of accusations and counter accusations, of slamming doors and tempestuous situations crowded in upon her. She wanted none of that, she wanted peace and harmony, mutual respect, understanding. She stared blankly at her tea cup, trying to control her surging memories and the desire to get up and run away, away from the hurt and pain which remained echoing between the kitchen walls. She felt her own heart repeating Peter’s cry. I’m real. Real. She too wanted to be real, a real person, whatever that was. At times it seemed to her impossible to define clearly what a real person was. Free? Unafraid? Self-sufficient? But how to be free? How to be self-sufficient and unafraid, when at every turn one was faced with obligations, limitations and dangers of all sorts.
One acted unafraid now and did wild crazy things, and then what happened when you were old and had to go and live in some old people’s home and wait to die, boring everyone with stories of wild adventures experienced sixty years ago which no one believed anyway? But if you’d never done anything then you’d be even more boring. That is if you hadn’t learned the secret of listening. She had learnt that secret, but there were moments when she felt that it was perhaps a rather substitute way of living, to live the adventures of others, because one never had the courage to live one’s own. Looking up she saw Mr. Carlie set down the empty shopping bag and, automatically, accustomed always to try and restore peace and equanimity she rose to her feet and said,” I’ll get you some coffee.”
Mrs. Carlie sank down on one of the chairs and said in her ordinary conversational tone. “Peter can be so trying. He’s very highly strung, most tiresome. Have you had your breakfast already, dear?”
Juli placed a cup of steaming coffee in front of her hostess and moved the milk jug and sugar bowl towards her.
“Thank you, dear. Now then, what about my bother Dereck? His van has gone so he must have gone into town already ….”
“Peter introduced us, just before you came in. He said it is very possible that we shall be leaving tomorrow morning.”
“So soon? His trips are always these flying trips, dashing into B.A. Quite dizzying. How he can get everything done in a day I really don’t know.” Mrs. Carlie sipped her coffee, made a little grimace and added two spoonfuls of sugar. “Well I’m glad you’ve met him,” she went on. “Did he say anything about dinner?”
“I think I heard him say he’d be back for supper.”
“Ah. Well apparently Lena and the children are all well and looking forward so much to your arrival.” Mrs.Carlie flashed Juli a special party smile, her mind obviously on other matters.
“Er…” Juli said hesitantly. “I’m going to help Rita prepare for some fancy dress clothes for the children at the kindergarten, so I won’t be in for lunch today. Will that be all right?”
“Why yes, of course, dear. How nice.”
“Juli picked up her and Peter’s breakfast things, took them to the sink and washed them up.”
“Everybody is supposed to wash up their own things after breakfast,” Mrs. Carlie said irritably. “But Peter usually manages to forget. Really that child.”
Juli left the kitchen quickly. She did not in the least wish to become involved in Mrs. Carlie’s conflict with Peter and find herself having to give opinions, for it was obvious that until Marion did begin to see Peter as an adult, there was certainly little hope of a solution. She ran upstairs, collected her anorak and hand bag into which she had stuffed pencils, and her sewing kit, and hurried downstairs to be ready for Rita’s twin brother to fetch her. María let her out and locked the gate behind her when he arrived and in no time they were in front of Rita’s little house. Napoleón started barking as soon as Juli rang the bell, and greeted her joyously when Rita opened the door and let her in, waving a ‘thank you’ to Fernando as she did so.
“Come in, come in,” she cried, giving Juli a delighted hug. “I started early this morning so as to get ahead a bit. How wonderful that you could come.”
Under the heaps of coloured crêpe paper strewn all over the living room and kitchen, the house showed signs of having been cleaned and tidied. The usual mound of dirty dishes had been washed and stacked, the ash trays were innocent of cigarette stubs, and a fragrant smell of freshly made coffee pervaded the two rooms.
“Shall we have coffee now or later?” Rita asked and Juli decided she would prefer to have it later. They sat on the carpet in the sitting room, Rita jabbed a cassette into the tape recorder while Juli inspected one of the Brownie’s hats which Rita had been working on. “”How cute,” she laughed, holding up the little hat. “Now … tell me what you want me to do.”
Rita showed her how to make paper skirts and they were soon hard at work, snipping, pinning, sewing and sticking. Napoleón snoozed beside them, his head resting on a piece of brown paper as if he had intended to help. Soft pop music filled the quietness of the house and the two young women felt the warmth of their newly born friendship enveloping them with sheath upon sheath of comradeship and affection.
“I met Dereck Birnham this morning,” Juli said. “He arrived last night, late.”
“Really? What’s he like?”
“A bit like a tornado. Asks question but doesn’t expect an answer. He grabbed me by the shoulders and marched me into the light ‘to see me better’ as if I was a prize heifer! Then he left … after deciding, I hope, … that I would do. He said we would probably leave tomorrow. He’s sort of square, in shape I mean, and sun tanned and tremendously vital, his vitality is like a punch in the stomach if you know what I mean. He seems quite different to his sister, Mrs. Carlie. He told me to call him Dereck.”
“Peter’s mother always makes me feel a bit nervous,” Rita said giggling. “As if I were about five years old making mud pies in the living room.”
“Peter and his mother had a terrible row this morning, it was awful.”
“He never talks about his home. The only member of his family he ever mentions is his father. What did they fight about?”
“Such a stupid thing, it was not the words really, but the tone of voice.” Juli described Peter’s argument with his mother in detail and sighed. “I wish I could help him, I wonder if he’s like that because he’s jealous of Tony and Pamela.”
“Could be,” Rita agreed thoughtfully. “It sounds logical.”
“And if one were to tell Mrs. Carlie she’d say one was crazy. I don’t think she’d understand at all. She insists that Peter is very highly strung, she treats him like a little boy and, now I think about it, being able to hurt him gives her pleasure, or a sort of sense of power. You should have seen the way she was after Peter had crashed out of the kitchen. Quite unruffled. I felt like a rag that had been used to clean a cement floor.”
“But doesn’t Mr. Carlie realize?”
“I think he’s one of those people who want peace at any cost. The ostrich type, ‘have a drink, dear, you’re upset’ he’s very nice but Dino told me he lets Mrs. C run everything. The only thing though, he did insist on Dino being treated like one of the family. She probably wanted him to eat in the kitchen.”
“Dino? That’s the cousin who lives with them, no? The one you went out with the other day.”
“Yes. He’s nineteen and in his last year of high school.”
“And she wanted him to eat in the kitchen?” Rita exclaimed, aghast.
“Well, I don’t know exactly. I just said that, but she seems to have a thing about eating in the kitchen, she’s always threatening Peter. I think she feels that Dino’s branch of the family has come down very much on the social scale and he isn’t … you know … quite acceptable socially.”
“She sounds awful,” Rita groaned.
“But she isn’t! At least she’s been really good to me. Tony and Pam have no problems, and she is not horrid to Dino, at least not that I’ve noticed. He says that she hates him, but she probably doesn’t feel anything for him one way or another, so long as he behaves nicely and looks clean.”
Rita giggled. “We sound like a couple of gossiping old hags, don’t we?” she said, laying down a seventh Brownie hat, beautifully made in crêpe paper. “Let’s have some coffee.”
“Rita,” Juli said suddenly, very seriously, as Rita brought in mugs of coffee, and some cookies, on a tray. “It has just hit me … the enormousness of what I have undertaken to do … to look after two little girls. I’m a secretary, not a kindergarten teacher or a trained nanny. What on earth was Mrs. Horn, the lady who engaged me, thinking of?”
•She probably chose you for your character. Life on an Estancia in Argentina, especially in the Pampa can be … well, quite harsh. And then perhaps Mr. Birnham didn’t want to pay the salary a properly trained kindergarten teacher or a nanny might ask. There could be lots of reasons, no?.”
“Yes, but Rita, to be quite honest I’m suddenly terrified. I feel that however much common sense I have and all that, the responsibility is so big. Two children. All day. It’s like being a mother but without the authority. If Lena, Mrs. Birnham, doesn’t agree with me, then what? And I can’t go rushing off to ask her what she thinks every two minutes.”
“Don’t worry, you’ll manage.”
“Rita, these are children, not puppies or kittens. They’re at the most impressionable age. If I make a mistake the effect will last all their lives may be, or make them rotten mothers which might affect their children. Oh, my God, I can’t bare it!”
Juli covered her face with her hands, as scenes of her childhood mixed with those she had experienced that morning whirled through her mind. For the first time the enormity of her responsibility pressed in upon her. She saw the two fair little babies she had seen in the photos Marion had shown her, as if they were made of putty. Soft, malleable, so easily changed by a word or a gesture, so easily hurt, so easily spoilt.
She thought of Peter and, what could be, his crippling jealousy; of Dino, and how he loved his parents and felt so ashamed of his father; of Ann and her indifference towards their father, of all they had lived through and how that had moulded them. Would it ruin their married lives? Would they too fight and hurt their once so beloved partners, and in turn be hurt by them? Or become alcoholics? Or worse? Would all that she had lived through make her a better governess for Marina and Tishy or would it act as a back-lash and leave its mark on their innocent little lives too?
Common sense. Common sense was fine but more than that was needed. Sensitivity, love, understanding, patience, tolerance, kindness, justice, honesty … the list was endless and Juli was not at all sure that she would be able to comply with it. Her mind raced on, envisioning difficulties with Lena, or with Dereck, about certain attitudes, points of view, authority, the children’s behaviour. What if they were little monsters, naughty, spoilt and impossible to handle? She had brushed away all such comments on the part of her friends while readying herself for the trip in England. She had closed her mind to all her own misgivings, convincing herself that no problem was insoluble given the chance of a bit of goodwill and …again, those useful little words … common sense.
But now, on the eve of her new job she was suddenly aware of how little prepared she was for it. She remembered her first few months as secretary. The enormous amount of paper she had had to throw away because of all her typing errors. The times she had forgotten to take note of some important information or advise her boss of something she had taken note of.
“These are children I shall be working with, two little human beings who will one day be grown up, and whose attitude towards life might be affected by how I myself behave … and I have no training, none whatsoever. We were all mad, the Birnhams, Mrs.Horn, myself. One can’t become a secretary without proper training. How can I possibly look after children without proper training?” Juli gazed at Rita with an anguished expression.
“I think you’ll have to give it a try, Juli, I mean they’ve paid your passage here and everything. But listen, if it doesn’t work you can come here and live with us and get a job as a secretary. We have another bedroom, it’s a mess just now, full of boxes and wedding presents and things but we can easily fix it up.”
Juli stared at Rita, hardly able to take in her words. At last she said, “Your nuts Rita, how could I possibly land myself on you and Quique? You’re absolutely right, I shall have to give it a try and do my best, that’s all. But I sure am scared now!”
She grinned a slightly wobbly grin and set herself to get on with the paper skirts as a new stream of thoughts flooded her mind. The picture rose up of herself galloping across acres of green unfenced land, her hair streaming out in the wind, the sun burning her arms and her face. The picture of the Walküre, a crazy wonderful picture etched into her imagination. A secretary? She had not come all the way to Argentina to be a secretary. She had wanted to escape all that. Leave behind her for once and for all, or at any rate a good long time, the clack of typewriters, the whirring of computers, the electric light life of offices, the separation from nature.
Picking up a piece of crêpe paper she shook her head, for she saw how irresponsible and selfish she had been. In accepting the job she had not once thought of the two little girls as real. She had thought of herself, of her hopes and dreams and nothing at all hardly, of her responsibilities, of all the truths which had arisen in her just now. Why had the Birnhams wanted someone like her? Because they were not prepared to pay the salary of a fully trained nanny? Then they too were at fault, then they too had been thinking of their own convenience and not entirely of the best for their children. Did everything then in life revolve around selfishness and ego-centricity? Was there no way out of that either? Her thoughts and feelings bogged down and she sighed deeply.
Rita said comfortingly, “I am not a trained kindergarten teacher, Juli. I got the job because I speak good English and I love children.”
“O.K. but didn’t you tell me the lady who runs the kindergarten gives the teachers a seminar every Thursday afternoon and teaches you how to teach?”
“Yes, that’s true but…”
“Exactly. Who’s going to teach me?”
“Well, obviously Mr. and Mrs. Birnham I suppose.”
“Juli flattened out the last little crêpe paper skirt and said with a sigh,” What are your little kids going to act?”
“That a giant has captured a beautiful Princess so all the brownies and the fairies decide to help the Prince to save her by dancing and singing for the Giant. That sends him to sleep and then the Prince can save the Princess. All the fairies’ skirts are made, how fantastic!” Rita counted Juli’s handiwork carefully. “The Prince and the Princess have their things already, and the giant is a big brother so he’s going in jeans and a pullover and his mother is going to make him a beard, and he’ll probably be wearing a boina too.”
“What’s a boina?”
“A kind of round cap.”
“Don’t you think, in this very republican world, that the idea of keeping on with Kings and Queens and Princesses is a bit archaic?”
“No, not at all, really. If one thinks of each character representing some part of the personality then it makes sense. The Giant would be the instinctive, thoughtless, uncontrolled part. The Princess all that is good and kind, the Prince all that is noble and courageous who marries her, and the brownies and fairies the forces of nature who help them.”
“True, I hadn’t thought of it from that point of view.”
“That’s how fairy stories are supposed to be interpreted. As images the children absorb. The little boys want to be braver than the princes and the little girls want to be purer than the princesses.
“And the Giants and witches? They used to frighten me no end!”
“They usually do bad or naughty things, like cheating or telling lies so it’s O.K. that they should be punished.”
The door bell rang and Napoleón leapt up and began to bark. “Ah, that must be the Pizza I ordered,” Rita exclaimed, scrambling to her feet. “Good, I’m starving!”
She hurried to the door, received the pizza, paid for it and hurried into the kitchen to collect plates and cutlery. They ate it sitting on the floor giggling and finishing off the last of the beards for the brownies. Rita put on a brownie hat complete with beard attached which she had just finished and bounced over to the hall mirror. She burst into a peal of laughter. “Isn’t it cute?” she cried delightedly. “They’ve really turned out super.”
Juli got up and stretched, the sky had clouded over and had become dark and stormy. A flash of lightening split the sky for a second or two, followed by a sharp clap of thunder.
“I had better go, Rita before it rains. Could you call a taxi for me?”
“You’re right, I’ll call our pal right away. He’s sure to be free.”
“What about all this?” Juli asked, looking at the huge state of confusion the sitting room was in.
“I’ll tidy it all when I get back. Out you go Napoleón, go and pee.” Rita opened the back door into a tiny garden and Napoleón trotted outside obediently. Juli collected her things, laid all the skirts she had made carefully on a book case out of harm’s way and pulled on her anorak. A few minutes later a taxi drove up to the house and Rita rushed out to give the driver the correct address. “He’s a friend of ours, we always call him,” she assured Juli. “You can trust him.”
She gave Juli a hug and a kiss, saw her into the taxi and then dashed back into the house to get ready to go to work. The taxi driver tried to chat in a friendly way but Juli explained in halting Spanish “no entiendo muy bien” – I don’t understand – and he laughed and nodded. At one moment, when they were stopped by the traffic lights, Juli glanced out of the window at the people walking on the sidewalk and to her amazement she recognized the lady whom she had seen in the airport, walking past. She was wearing in a warm thick raincoat and accompanied by her little sausage dog on a leash. Why of all the people in Buenos Aires, should she keep seeing this woman who seemed to be brushing the fringes of her life, as if here too some invisible hand were gently yet inexorably drawing them nearer.
Sitting at the table in her bedroom Juli found it difficult to concentrate on writing the letters she wanted to get posted before leaving Buenos Aires. The storm which had been threatening while she was at Rita’s, broke soon after she arrived back at the Carlies and she watched the curtain of rain misting out the bare branches of the trees in the garden next door. She sat, staring out of the window, thinking again of Peter’s quarrel with his mother that morning.
Memories of her childhood bubbled up within her together with the sorrow those memories brought with them. If one just remembered the angry voices, slamming doors, broken crockery it would be easier to bear, but the memories seemed to have anguish and fear engraved into them. That nameless, secret, faceless fear which had, all through her childhood, stalked the hallways of her mind, presaging disasters she could not even guess at. When her parents had finally separated it had almost been a relief, except for the guilt she had experienced because she had continued to love her father and to see him, which had had to be kept hidden from her mother.
Now, here, when everything had seemed so lovely, so peaceful, so attractively other-worldly and, yes … so it had seemed to her … safe, it was not at all so. Dereck Birnham looked far too young and vital to be fifty, Marion Carlie, for all her charm didn’t seem to be a very understanding person. Juli realized with a shock that she had been on the verge of thinking of her as a sort of foster mother; someone attractive and kind to turn to in moments of trouble or depression.
With a rush of homesickness, Juli thought of her mother and the searing finality of death engulfed her. She felt desperately lonely and sad. With unseeing eyes she continued to stare out of the window thinking of Ann and her father, of the flat she had shared and of her life in London. The boring day-to-day round rose in her memory and she remembered the monotony and the apparent rut she had found herself in. She had wanted to escape, escape from the fact that her mother was dead, that she had no home and absolutely nothing to interest her and give meaning to her life, or, for that matter, anyone who was very interested in her as a real person.
Her mother had needed her, had leaned on her, waited up for her at night when she returned late, listened with interest when she recounted snippets of gossip from the office. An unexpected yearning to see her mother filled her and she murmured “Mum, oh Mum, where are you now? Why did you have to die? Poor Mummy, poor old Mum.” She laid her head on her folded arms as a deep depression settled over her heart.
“I’m real … real” Peter’s words drummed in her head and she thought “That was Dad’s cry. ‘Let’s be ourselves for God’s sake, not forever glancing over our shoulders wondering what the neighbours will say.’ But it had mattered to Mum. Being like that was real to her. Oh, God, how can one ever expect to be happy and peaceful and in harmony? It’s just a pipe dream. I’m crazy. I dream of a man with whom I can be at peace, with whom I can have complete understanding, with whom I can be real. But if my ‘real’ causes him pain and discomfort because I’m too cold or don’t show my feelings …” she remembered Peter’s jibe ‘Oh so you do have feelings!’ and felt herself shaken by a sudden anger “Of course I have feelings, you fool. You fools.” She said aloud. But an inner voice murmured even as she clenched her fists, “But you’ve been trying for years to wipe out all traces of your Dad’s character from your own. Only in music….” But why only in music? What, in the end, was wrong with showing one’s feelings? “But then you’d be like Dereck or Peter, uncontrolled.” Her inner voice interposed. “There must be a middle way, something which isn’t the detachment of Mum or Marion …”
It was the first time she had seen any likeness between Mrs. Carlie and her mother but it was clear, that they were both women for whom the image was more important than the substance, not completely of course, but on the whole it was clear on which side the balance was weighted.
“That’s it,”Juli thought wearily. “One must never lose sight of the importance of substance in any relationship. If that fails then no kind of ‘form’ will save it.” She ran her fingers through her hair, and leaning her elbows on the table she supported her aching head on her hands and murmured aloud over and over again, “I don’t know, I don’t know…”
At last she picked up her pen and with a kind of bitter wryness, she wrote to her sister a cool, dutiful letter telling her all about her new experiences, mentioning that she had met Dereck Birnham and found him a very ‘vital man, full of energy who seemed very nice.’ But was he? What lay behind all that vitality? What had Dino said? That he was pretty much a ‘skirts’ man, did that mean she’d have to be fighting him off …? The idea appalled her, as visions of Dereck trying to mess around with her rose in her mind’s eye. Angrily she pushed them away, blaming Joanie and Dino for all the things they had said. “But all the same,” her inner voice said. “To be forewarned is to be forearmed. If anything blows up it won’t be unexpected”
Juli remembered that Mrs. Horn had said that the Birnhams were very nice people, very kind and fair who would honour their commitments and treat her well. That she would love the Pampa and enjoy her new life no end. Anyway, no man in his right senses would create a situation of that sort, especially with a new baby on the way. No, she was crazy to start worrying about things like that. If Dereck Birnham was keen of skirts he’d have a mistress somewhere, either here in Buenos Aires, or in the local town of something.
Picking up her pen she continued her letter to Ann, keeping her mind fully under control until it was finished. That done, she wrote all about the concert to her father and her impressions of Buenos Aires, and her pen flew. By the time she had finished her second letter she was herself again. But it was, for all that, a changed self, for in some subtle way, vague, half-formed opinions and personal aspirations had begun to crystallize and she knew two things: she never wanted to be a slave to an ‘image’, and she was determined to discover and nurture her own personal reality. A mask was all very well, but what was behind it was very important and needed the most careful attention.
Feeling that perhaps she should join the family downstairs, Juli folded her letters and stuck them into their envelopes, addressed them and set off down the passage hoping to find Dino and ask him to post the letters for her. On the way she met Peter.
“Hello,” he said. “You’re looking very perky.”
“Thank you,” she said. “I spent the morning with Rita helping her to prepare for the show her kindergarten kids are going to put on. I really enjoyed myself. Peter … are you all right?” She peered into his eyes which were very bloodshot and what she could see of his face was pale and haggard.
Juli hesitated irresolutely and then she said firmly. “No you’re not, you’re … you’re … where can we talk?”
“Come into my room.”
Peter’s room reflected his emotional turbulence. It was small, extremely untidy and a huge poster of a half naked model in a sexy position occupied a prominent position on the wall. Books and papers littered his desk and the floor beside it. He pushed the desk chair towards Juli and sat down on his tumbled, unmade bed. Outside the clouds seemed to have grown darker, pressing down against the roofs of the houses. He ran his fingers through his untidy mop of hair and said gruffly, “I’ve just got to get away.”
“Can’t you?” Juli asked. “What about Sandy?”
“Sandy? He shares a three room flat with his mother and grandmother. They have very little money. His parents are divorced.” Peter shook his head and went on bitterly. “Gaahd, why can’t my mother stop bitching around, nagging me everlastingly? She says she’s sick and tired of me, but she has no idea how I … Exams! I’ll never pass any exam at this rate. I haven’t studied a thing all morning. How the hell can one concentrate? You saw how she treated me, how she always treats me. How she enjoys playing the powerful one. I have no money, I can’t go away, so she taunts and threatens. Now, for a week, if I eat here I shall have to eat in the kitchen then someone will come to lunch or dinner and back I’ll be at the table. She prefers to put up with my appearance than that the slightest suspicion that we are not a perfectly beautiful family should get about. Anyway, by pretending to her friends she doesn’t mind me dressed like this (…’it’s his way of showing his independence my dear…’ I’ve heard her) everybody thinks that she’s marvellous, so understanding, so patient. She laps it up. Then, in private, she criticizes, complains and nags morning, noon and night. Shit, shit, shit. It just gets me down. I must get away, I must. I’m sorry Juli, but I feel like a volcano.”
Peter rubbed his face fiercely with both his hands.
“And if you were to change?”
“What do you mean?” Peter glared at her.
“When a great wind blows,, the trees which are rigid are ripped up and fall down. But nothing happens to the grass, it flattens and then stands up again as soon as the wind stops blowing.”
“You sound like some Yogi Guru.”
Juli shrugged slightly and said, “As an outsider, it sort of looks like you and your mother have each taken up a certain position and have become so tied to your own points of view that nothing on earth will make either of you see the other’s. It just occurred to me to wonder what her reaction would be if you appeared with your hair and your beard clipped, and different jeans. I don’t know.”
“And give in to her?”
“But Peter, by dressing three points more tidily out of say twenty, would mean flexibility on your part ….”
“I don’t agree. Her attitude, the whole basis of her philosophy of life … call it what you like … is false, completely false. How can you ask me to give in, to cow-tow to something which is false?”
“But why do you stay here then? You could go and get another job.”
“This is my home damn it! One has to have a degree in this country if one wants to get a decent job, I have the right to study.”
“But why did you select such a difficult subject when, as you said yourself it may take you ten years to get a degree?”
“I didn’t mean that literally, one’s got to study something.”
“Sure, but why not study to be an electrician and work with an electrician to learn the practical side, and then later…”
“For crying out loud, why should I have to go out and learn a trade because I’m not clever like Tony? My parents should keep me till I get my degree, it’s their duty.”
Juli looked at him helplessly. At last she said, “It seems to me you’re in a vicious circle all the same. You’re so unhappy you can’t study, and until you get your degree you can’t leave. It’s as if, way deep down, you don’t really want to leave at all, and so in your way you’re just as false as your mother. You chose a really difficult subject to study and then, since you have to live here, instead of finding a way to do so in peace, compromising, you start to fight with her. She wants you to change and you want her to change. It’s crazy, what do you really want, Peter?
Peter stood up so abruptly she thought he was going to hit her.
“Damn you,” he hissed, thrusting his face close to hers. “Damn you, damn you.”
Shocked, she sat quite still, staring at him.
“I thought you’d understand,” he said violently. “But you’re like her. Cool, emotionless, compromising … Form … Image …” He spat the words at her.
Juli could not move. His sudden reaction shook her so profoundly that she could only stare at him, motionless. No one had ever spoken to her quite like that before, but what shocked her was that his violence aroused an enormous, undreamed-of violence in herself. She wanted to lash out, to hit him, hurt him, get even with him, but her gaze betrayed nothing of what she was feeling. With an angry exclamation Peter flung over to the window and stood staring out of it at the storm outside.
At last Juli stood up and said quietly and clearly, “You’re jealous, jealous of Tony and Pamela, that’s why you’re always fighting with your mother, so that she’ll notice you. That’s why you don’t want to go away. It’s got nothing to do with your right to study.”
With a great effort she forced her legs to move and carry her out of the room, along the passage and into her own. Once there she flung herself onto the bed and wept. Her tears burned her eyes and soaked into her pillow. She ached to be back in London under England’s gentle skies and enveloping mists, away from Argentina and this new life where passions and emotions lurked just below the surface, threatening to engulf one at any moment. A blinding flash of lightening followed by a tremendous clap of thunder brought her to her feet. For several minutes she contemplated the almost continual flashes of lightening and rumbling of thunder and felt herself growing calmer. After a while she went and washed her face and then brushed her hair vigorously for one hundred strokes.
“To hell with them all,” she thought. “I’m not going to mix up in their lives any more. I hope we can go tomorrow. I’m sick of it here.”
Glancing at her watch, she decided not to go downstairs just yet. It would soon be supper time, or rather, at eight thirty, dinner time, and there was no need to appear before. She began to fold and pack the few belongings she had unpacked on arrival, remembering once more the lady with the little sausage dog, wondering who she was and why she seemed to keep seeing her.
Her thoughts were interrupted by a gentle tap on her bedroom door. Thinking it was Dino she hurried to open it and found Peter leaning against the passage wall, his hands in his pockets, contemplating the right toe of his worn-out sneakers.
“Peter,” she exclaimed. “What …?”
“I want to apologise for my behaviour just now. I’m sorry Juli. I was frightfully rude.”
He looked at her with a level gaze and said, “I’ve been thinking a lot about what you said, and I guess you’re right. I am jealous of Pamela and Tony. You really helped me, Juli.”
Juli flushed. Peter’s words pleased her and yet she felt embarrassed and a little shy.
“I’m glad.” Her words sounded dreadfully lame but she could think of nothing else to say. “I’m awfully glad,” she repeated with emphasis.
“Could you cut my hair and beard a bit, just a little?”
Juli felt her jaw drop open and she said quickly, “Are you crazy? I’m not a hairdresser!”
“A hairdresser will cut too much off. I just want it trimmed. Please.”
“Well, if you’re willing to take a chance … come into the bathroom and I’ll cut it there.”
She unearthed her scissors and followed him into the bathroom. He sat on a stool and she wrapped him in a bath towel and began to snip at his untidy locks gingerly. It was not as difficult as she had imagined, and memories of hairdressers with flashing, practised hands, cutting and shaping, rose in her mind as she proceeded with more confidence. A few minutes later she stood back to inspect her handiwork and decided that is was satisfactory, Peter got up and scrutinised himself in the mirror.
“Hey, that’s great,” he said. “Just what I wanted! Now my beard a little and you can go into business as a hairdresser. Thanks a ton, Juli”
Juli shaped his beard carefully, intent on her work and yet very conscious of Peter’s eyes, so near her own, his neat, slightly snub nose and the whiteness of his teeth when he smiled. Somehow he seemed very young sitting there with the towel wrapped round his thin rather defenceless neck, his dangling locks neatly shaped and not resembling those of some rabid hippy’s. He lifted his hands for inspection.
“Nails OK?” he asked, his eyes twinkling. Juli inspected them with feigned exaggeration and nodded solemnly. “Now the back of your ears,” she said and they both burst out laughing.
At that moment Pamela appeared at the open bathroom door. “Peter,” she cried. “You’ve cut your hair!”
“Yeah, what do you think? Will it do?”
“And your beard. You look so different!”
Peter stood up and Juli unclasped the towel carefully, shaking it over the waste-paper basket in the corner. “How’s my little sister,” he asked, ruffling Pamela’s hair gently.
“Fine thanks,” Pamela grinned, pushing his hand away.
“I’ll have to take you to the port to get more stones one of these days.”
“Hey, yes Peter, please. I’m right out. When can we go?”
“The Sunday after my exams, O.K.?”
“Yippee, is that a promise? Can Monica come too?”
Peter laughed and said cheerfully to Juli, “You notice that Pamela always presses her advantages.” To Pamela he said, “Yes, sure. Monica can come too, but you will have to cadge the car out of Mum.”
Pamela’s expression became serious as she considered this new angle. Then she shrugged and said, “O.K. I’ll have to get the right moment. It’s a good thing you cut your hair.”
Peter bowed in silence.
“Oh, I nearly forgot, dinner’s ready. I was sent to tell you. Will it be this Sunday Peter, or next?”
“Morning or afternoon?”
“Afternoon. Will you tell Mum that I’m not in for dinner?
“OK.” Pamela skipped off happily, practicing some very complicated steps all the way down the long passage.
Peter stood in front of Juli awkwardly, as if he wanted to say something, but at last he leaned forward and kissed her very softly on the cheek.
“Good bye, Juli, I can’t guarantee being up to say good bye tomorrow. I think Dereck is planning to leave pretty early. Good luck with Marina and Tishy, and … stick to your guns. I mean, Dereck makes a lot of noise but he’s alright underneath. We haven’t seen Lena for ages so I can hardly say I know her.”
“Thanks,” Juli smiled. “And good luck in your exams. Will you let me know how you get on?”
“Certainly, if the news is good.”
Juli laughed. After a quick glance in the mirror she stepped into the passage. “I’d better go,” she said.
“Yes, yes. Don’t blot your copybook. ‘Bye ‘bye, Juli, and … thanks for everything.”
She made a funny little grimace at him and hurried off down the passage, leaving Peter looking after her with a strange expression in his eyes.